The Battle of Milk vs Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
Milk—it does a body good, right? So goes the old Dairy industry slogan for cow’s milk that most all of us grew up on. But for many of us, milk from cows just doesn’t work if you are one of the 30-50 million people in this country (National Institute of Children’s Health & Human Development), who cannot drink cow milk because they are lactose intolerant. And another 1.5 million (or more) may have a genuine dairy allergy to casein, a protein in cow’s milk (US Census Bureau, 2010).
Plant based “milks” are way up this year with giant chains like Starbucks offering alternative milk products for those who are vegan, avoid dairy milk for environmental or animal rights reasons, or have allergies/intolerances—or just plain don’t like it.
Early entries in the alternative milk market included soy milk and rice milk. While soy milk has enjoyed shelf space for a decade or more, newer entries like hemp, almond, cashew, macademia nut, coconut and even pea protein ‘milk’ are generally healthier and tastier options than soy milk.
Here is a run-down of the current plant-based milk substitutes compared to real milk:
Real Dairy (Cow) Milk
Real dairy milk still sits on top as the leader, but dairy milk sales are dwindling, especially in light of the many alternatives that are flooding the market. Milk has gotten a bad rap lately, and in light of what goes on at large scale industrial dairies, it’s no wonder. Conventional dairy is full of antibiotics, growth hormones, bad fats and even nasty stuff like pus, from the constant infections that dairy cows get due to the unnatural and unhealthy conditions they have to endure.
While it is true that we humans are the only ones who consume the milk of another animal meant to nourish their babies, milk has become a constant in our society and a reliable source of nutrition—if you get it from the right place.
While conventional dairy production includes high temperature pasteurization, and homogenization of its fat, raw milk comes straight from the cow, full of enzymes and nutrients that make its vitamins and minerals more bioavailable, as well as easier to digest. For many with milk allergies or sensitivities, raw milk is the answer, as the pasteurization not only destroys many of the helpful enzymes which make it easier to digest, and the heat degrades and distorts milk protein molecules making it a foreign substance that causes allergies. If organic milk is available, it is generally a step above conventional milk, but still not ideal. Organic milk avoids the antibiotics and growth hormones that are in conventional dairy milk.
Grass fed milk contains nutrients that are vastly superior to conventional milk and organic milk, and comes from cows who are much healthier, eating their natural diet. Grass fed milk contains a higher amount of healthy omega 3 fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which have a variety of health benefits including immune system, bone mass, heart health, and lean body mass. Grass fed milk also contains a very unique and vital nutrient, vitamin K2, which helps our bodies utilize calcium in our bones and teeth, fights cancer and heart disease, and inflammation.
However, raw milk is even better–loaded with enzymes, beneficial bacteria, vitamins, minerals, and protein—all of which are severely degraded or destroyed when it is pasteurized. Raw milk is not readily available in stores as most states still strictly regulate raw milk, and it must be purchased through farmers’ markets or small dairy farms. Raw milk is usually far fresher and better tasting than any conventional or organic milk you find at your grocery store.
And if you can get organic, grass-fed raw milk you have the perfect combination!
Bottom Line: Conventional dairy milk is not good for you, bad for the environment and bad for the cows who produce it. Organic milk is slightly better as it avoids the growth hormones and excessive antibiotics in conventional dairy. Grass-fed milk contains better fats and vitamin K2, which actually helps prevent clogged arteries. Raw milk is the best choice, easier to digest, less likely to produce allergic reactions, and full of nutrients, enzymes and beneficial bacteria. And it tastes way better. Organic, grass fed, raw milk is really the best way to go if you are going to drink cow’s milk. Also, it should be noted that goat milk is considered to be easier to digest for most people than cow milk, and a good option to consider. Here’s an article about 5 reasons to drink raw goat milk.
Soy Milk, the old standby alternative milk, is not as popular as it once was, and is now being surpassed by almond milk, coconut milk, and other healthier choices. Soy is considered a decent source of protein, because it contains all the amino acids you need in your diet. However, avoid soy protein isolate as it can also create deficiencies of vitamins E, D, B12, calcium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, copper, iron and zinc. Soy milk has come a long way with flavor and most of the commercial brands taste pretty decent now.
Soy milk is also considered a pretty highly processed food and contains something called ‘phytic acid’ which actually can block absorption of essential minerals – calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and especially zinc – in the intestinal tract.
One of the problems is that the majority of soy is GMO soy (which has it’s own host of potential problems), but even if it is labeled as organic, soy milk still contains plant estrogens that can disrupt natural hormones in the body, for men and women. Soy is thought to be ‘feminizing’ to men and possibly be the cause of excess weight gain and even gynecomastia, or ‘man-boobs’. While soy has also been thought to interfere with healthy thyroid function, latest studies show negligible effects on thyroid function.
Bottom Line: There are better alternatives out there now than soy milk.
Almond Milk has become the darling of the plant-based milks. Almond milk is taking over the market and now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the U.S. But, while a handful of almonds is loaded with nutrition like protein, fiber, antioxidants and healthy fats, to get the equivalent nutrition of a handful of almonds, you would need to drink about 48 ounces of almond milk for the same nutrition, and a massive amount of calories.
Almonds themselves require a large amount of water to grow, and almond milk, of course takes even more. So the amount of almonds you actually get in a glass of almond milk is pretty low. In fact, almonds are often actually the third ingredient, depending on the brand of almond milk you are drinking. Cartons of almond milk can contain as low as 2% almonds, the rest water, sugar, added vitamins and minerals, and thickening agents like carrageenan, and guar gum, which can upset stomachs. However, some brands are moving away from the carrageenan and adding an emulsifier-thickener-stabilizer known as gellan gum that seems to be less irritating to the digestive system.
Bottom Line: Not bad if you just want a little on your cereal or in your coffee now and then, but don’t start guzzling it because you think it is as nutritious as a handful of almonds. Go for the unsweetened version if you can, otherwise, it’s a lot of empty calories with little nutrition.
Coconut Milk isn’t the same stuff you get straight from the coconut–it is processed a bit more. And don’t confuse the canned coconut milk with the more processed coconut milk in the carton. They are two very different products! Coconut milk has a smooth, creamy flavor, and generally does not have much of a coconut taste. And if you are a first timer with plant-based milks, this may be a good one to try, as it generally has a pretty neutral flavor with no aftertaste like some plant-based milks.
Coconut milk is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides (an easily-digested healthy fat that helps burn fat), potassium, a host of fortified vitamins, and calcium. As with the other plant based milks, avoid the kinds with added sugar, and go for the unsweetened variety. Coconut milk is lower in protein and calcium generally than almond milk. Because coconut milk generally has a thicker, creamier texture, it works well in coffee drinks and makes a great cappuccino—which is probably why Starbucks has added it to their alternative milk choices.
Bottom Line: A decent milk substitute, but low in protein. Tasty tip: If you want a better tasting option than just almond milk or coconut milk by themselves, try mixing a carton of almond milk with a can of coconut milk… you end up with a much better taste with the 2 of these blended rather than either one separately.
Cashew Milk is another nutty, creamy alternative to cow’s milk. This recent addition is made by blending water-soaked cashews with water. This smooth beverage is a good source of fiber, antioxidants, copper (which helps produce and store iron) and magnesium (a mineral needed for proper nerve and muscle function). It can be added to everything from cereals to homemade puddings, to coffee.
Bottom Line: Similar creamy flavor like almond milk, but cashew milk is not big on protein, and you should avoid the kinds with added sugars.
Rice Milk was one of the early additions to the alternative milk market, right after soy milk, and tasted much better—with little aftertaste. However, rice milk is a pretty thin, watery and sugary milk substitute, so if you are looking for something to pour on your cereal, rice milk is a little more like flavored water. Rice milk also has a pretty high glycemic value and isn’t a great choice for someone trying to lose weight or control their blood sugar. It’s kind of similar to drinking sugar water, actually. Rice milk doesn’t have much in the way of protein, but may have some calcium and other nutrients added in as fortification.
Bottom Line: Rice milk is a possible substitute if you have dairy and/or nut allergies; however, it isn’t a nutritional superfood, and it’s thin and watery, and loaded with sugar usually.
Hemp Milk is produced from the seeds of the hemp plant, but don’t worry you won’t get high eating your breakfast cereal! Hemp seeds are known for their complete protein (contains all essential amino acids, along with healthy omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Hemp seeds are often seen as an ingredient in protein powders and and even used as flour. Hemp milk is another great milk if you are allergic to nuts or coconuts, and want a thicker, more substantial milk that contains a bit more nutrition than some of the other plant-based milks.
And unlike soy milk, hemp doesn’t contain oligosaccharides, those complex sugars that can cause gas. The smooth, slightly nutty flavor makes it work for a variety of things, including breakfast cereal, baking, and even sauces and gravies (just don’t get the vanilla flavored type for gravy).
Bottom Line: A decent tasting substitute for dairy milk, especially if you have nut or soy allergies, with a smooth creamy texture, healthy fats and protein.
Pea Protein Milk is the new kid on the block, following a variety of nut-based milks including almond, cashew, coconut and macadamia milks. For those of us with nut allergies, pea protein is a welcome addition—and it’s dairy, soy and gluten-free as well. Pea protein milk is a great milk for vegetarians and vegans, as it delivers a similar serving of protein comparable to cow’s milk.
While pea protein milk uses sunflower oil, it also has added omega 3 fats, along with iron, vitamin D and calcium. And…it has a great, smooth, creamy flavor. Milk substitutes are often guilty of lots of added sugars to improve the taste, but if you choose the ‘Original” flavor, it only contains 6 grams of sugar, making it one of the better tasting, low sugar options. One more added benefit—pea protein milk uses 93% less water than dairy milk, making it far far friendlier to our earthly resources.
Bottom Line: Pea protein milk is a good bet for a milk substitute, especially if you have nut and dairy allergies. Lower in sugar, higher in protein and other nutrients. Tastes good!
Blending them together: Once again, the best taste is probably if you combine pea protein milk with either almond milk, coconut milk, or both. Blending various plant milks usually has a better taste than any single plant milk by itself. I’ve experimented in the past with blending hemp milk, almond milk, and coconut milk together in a blender with a little stevia, and then pouring into a pitcher, and the taste was MUCH better than any of those 3 milks by themselves!
While all of these plant based ‘milk’ products are gaining ground, the ingredient lists on some of these can be high in sugar and thickening agents like guar gum and carrageenan, that can often upset digestive systems. With that in mind, it’s best to choose the unsweetened versions and just add your own stevia or monk fruit sweetener if you like it a little sweeter. Many of these so-called ‘healthy’ plant milks could be classified more as a processed food than a ‘natural’ food. So beware, read the label thoroughly, and make your own informed choices based on your own particular needs and tastes.